Fore-edge paintings are a fascinating subset of the literary and artistic worlds. But you may find yourself wondering: what are fore-edge paintings? In the late 18th century, many religious texts began to be published with ornate and artistic drawings or covers. Along with this other book art, publishers would occasionally – and painstakingly – color the page edges with ink or paint in order to create a secret picture. Sometimes this painting could not be seen unless the edges of the pages were splayed out slightly, so that many wouldn't even know it was there. While you'll find this throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and even today, it first rose to popularity in the late 1700s in England.
While some examples of these paintings are simple, involving flowers, text, or perhaps the shape of an animal, many others are intensely ornate. You might find the author's picture, a scene from the book, or a landscape from where the author or character grew up. Either way, these fore-edge painting books are very sought after, even if most of the titles have faded from memory.
Curious to discover more about this hidden world? Luckily for you, this list contains photos of some beautiful fore-edge paintings that are sure to knock your socks off – even if you've never heard of the book. Read on to marvel at some incredible images, and vote up the coolest of them all.
This epic poem was written by James Montgomery, who was a Scottish poet who worked well into the mid 1800s. This particular edition of his poem has a fore-edge painting that is both detailed and fascinating. Considering how relatively little was known about man's prehistoric past, seeing cavemen alongside mammoths, great bears, and even horses is surprising. Even more surprising is to see it along the side of a religiously-themed book. This edition was published in London in 1819, and still shows striking levels of detail and color throughout the painting.
One of the many religious texts on this list, this book of the new versions of the Psalms of David was published in 1844 by the University Press at Oxford. The ornateness of this book doesn't just end with the detail of the painting. The artist, Martin Frost, put this book in gold-tooled purple morocco binding, so that the pages looked golden unless they were splayed. Then, once they were fanned, you could catch a glimpse of a colored, finely-crafted painting of the Madonna with Jesus, surrounded by cherubs and nobles. If you look closely, you can even see the detail of individual leaves in the garlands that hang over Mary and Jesus' heads.
Not all books that had fore-edge paintings were works of literature. In the case of this painting, the art was done on the pages of a manuscripts and receipt book from the early nineteenth century. While historians don't know the publisher or date, they do know that the painting depicts an image of the Westminster Bridge and the Abbey, in detail so fine that you can see the stained glass windows. It appears as though the person who had this book used it somewhat, as it contains many of their notes and receipts, but the rest is blank. It just goes to show that this practice was so popular that it extended beyond novels, poetry, and religious texts.
This novel was first written by Jared Sparks in 1828, which is when this particular copy was printed. It was printed by Henry Coburn in London, and contains different correspondences of John Ledyard throughout his professional and personal life, creating a sort of biography for him. Not only is the fore-edge painting shown here a lovely, simple, and bold piece of art, it also may be a nod to someone Ledyard looked up to. This painting is likely an homage to the travels of Captain Cook, who John Ledyard sailed with while he was in the British Navy.